Supporting Equity in Virtual Instruction during COVID-19

How can elementary teachers modify face-to-face Project-Based Learning (PBL) instruction for virtual environments to support equity and opportunity for learning?  To explore this question, we present a comparative case study that investigates two teachers’ responses to teaching PBL during the COVID-19 virtual learning as they work closely with the Multiple Literacies in Project-based Learning (ML-PBL) coach and the lead author. The team compares the availability and use of the PBL features in the face-to-face environments with those observed in virtual contexts. In particular, the case study considers equity, or underserved student access and opportunity to learning in virtual science contexts – a national concern.

PBL has been shown to enable equitable access and learning for underserved students but is widely viewed as dependent on face-to-face, highly interactive contexts. Little is known about how the equitable PBL environments can be translated to virtual environments to support learning.

The four features of PBL analyzed in the study:

  1. Driving Question: Learning always begins with a driving question, which is a complex, open-ended question or problem that is meaningful to students and addresses disciplinary objectives.
  2. Extended Learning: Students answer the driving question by creating physical artifacts that track their thinking over time
  3. Collaboration: Students collaborate in groups to create artifacts.
  4. Community Connection: The driving question and artifact respond to a need or challenge in the community.

To adapt to the virtual context, both teachers built on their previous experience with PBL, and they sought to work with the coach to emphasize certain PBL features. Although their approaches were different, they both found some challenges and some successes with promoting equitable learning and PBL in virtual environments.

Amy taught 5th grade face-to-face and employed all four features. In interviews, she described how much she enjoyed immersing the students in collaborative aspects of scientific practices and artifact design. When she began to use a virtual format because of COVID-19, she worked with the coach to try several ways to support students to collaborate using discursive practices. After some attempts that did not work (i.e., having students help her create a model on the virtual whiteboard; having all students develop models at the same time on a shared whiteboard), she figured out that she could have small groups collaborate together, while the rest of the class chimed in using a chat feature. She also had students call each other at home to work as partners on investigations. Amy found that because of the benefits of engagement and student interest she was willing to invest extra time and energy to support student collaboration. She described the social aspect of collaboration as providing leverage to equitable learning.

Irma worked with bilingual students in the second and third grades. During face-to-face learning, she emphasized the community connection with her students and she wanted to continue that feature in her virtual instruction. In early interviews, she expressed interest in figuring out how to involve families with the students’ science education. The virtual context made science learning more difficult for Irma’s students because much of the language support that is available in face-to-face (i.e., non-verbal messaging, in-person science events) was now inaccessible. She asked the coach to work with her to involve students’ families in science learning. Irma developed interview questions, investigations, and discussions that were dependent on family involvement, and asked her students to look for a family member (older or younger) in the home to join the class.  In Irma’s case, the students were engaged in science because family members were also involved in the science, and they also were able to better use the funds of knowledge family members brought to class to build shared science understanding.

Both teachers were motivated by PBL and the benefits it offered to their students. They wanted to figure out virtual scenarios that could still achieve the same engagement, interest, and learning as face-to-face instruction. The teachers also figured out how to move toward equity, although in different ways – Amy through collaboration and Irma through using PBL to bridge family connections and science.